Sunday, September 3, 2017

The Boxcar Children 1942 by Gertrude Chandler Warner

This year I made a goal to read 100 books; I am tracking this as part of a Goodreads Challenge, as well as a board on Pinterest. So far I have a total of 61, which today (September 3) places six books behind schedule. (I am currently reading eight books, so if I manage to finish them all this week I’ll be back on track!)

The first book I finished, way back in January, was The Boxcar Children. This was the first in a series of the same name that I originally read as a child. There are nineteen total in the original series, and I am happy to say I now own all of them. I have decided I would like to read thru all nineteen this year, but haven’t really put much effort into it, so I’m only on number seven currently. Anyway, I chose this as my first book for the year because I found another reading list (along with the Time 100 list I’ve been reading through). This one is from Pinterest, and it has 26 suggestions for 2017, which comes out to one book every two weeks.

The first entry on the list is to read “a book you read in school,” which I started at the same time as The Boxcar Children, which was the second entry, “a book from your childhood.” (The book I read in school will be in another blog post.) This was in fact one of my favorites from childhood, and although it has never been a challenge to read, it has always managed to capture my imagination.

This book is about four siblings – Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny Alden – whom we meet as orphans, running away so they don’t have to live with their grandfather, whom is supposedly mean. They end up in an old, abandoned boxcar in the middle of a forest, with grass growing over tracks. They find an orphan dog with a hurt paw, and nurse him back to health, calling him “Watch.” They also find, nearby, an old dump full of “treasures” – broken but useable dishes, a board to make a shelf, some pots and pans, etc. Henry goes into town to do some odd jobs and buy food. By the end of the story they are discovered and reunited with their grandfather, who it turns out is a very kind old man. The rest of the series is more of their fun adventures.

Now, a little about why I enjoyed it so much. Just before starting third grade, we moved across town to a double wide trailer in a campground. About 50-60 yards or so behind our trailer was a set of railroad tracks, and next to them a dirt path leading out of town. I used to wander along that path exploring nature and the things man left behind, and one day I discovered my very own treasure. It was a dump, abandoned, probably long forgotten by the city, or whomever happened to own the land. It was much like I imagined the one in the story to be! I didn’t bring home anything to use, but I did spend countless hours exploring it and pretending to be like the four Alden children.

Reading it again, as an adult, I still had that fascination with the adventure of living alone in the boxcar, finding things to make a “home,” and a sense of purpose and accomplishment. It was a good first pick for this year, and it set the stage for many more great reading adventures. I hope to write about them all (all 100!) before the year closes, so stay tuned.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

The Lord of the Rings 1954 by J.R.R. Tolkien

“Three Rings for the Elven-Kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in halls of stone,
Nine for mortal men, doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
in the Land of Mordor where the shadows lie.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.
In the land of Mordor where the shadows lie.”

The third book on the TIME Top 100 list is The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. It was originally written as one book in three parts, so it’s included as one book on the list, although I read the three separately (and it took me about seven months to get through them, as they weren’t as interesting as I had hoped).

I had been putting off reading this book for years, so when it came up on the list I was reluctant to start.; I’m not sure why exactly, I really enjoyed The Hobbit both times I read it (in fact, I hope to read it again this year). I wish I could say that finally reading it made my reluctance seem silly, but honestly, I didn’t really enjoy the story very much. There wasn’t enough plot to keep my attention for long periods, and Tolkien writes with a lot of description. Sometimes I enjoy that, but as this was written about someplace I couldn’t picture in my mind, with creatures that I had no experience with, I found it difficult to follow.

There are a few themes that I remember that gave the story some redeeming quality in my mind – the idea of a true leader vs. a temporary fill-in; the idea that a group is not always the best approach to an epic adventure; and the idea of home not always being a place of innocence and contentment. Let me explain.

First of all, there were a couple of examples of lands or countries in Middle Earth that were being ruled by men who weren’t the “true” rulers. I don’t really remember specifics, I just remember this coming up a few times. And in each case, it was made clear that the people and land suffered under this temporary or, in some instances, “fake” leadership. This was made plain when the true leaders returned and took over, and life began to be prosperous again.

This stood out to me because I have worked under many types of leadership in my adult life, both in education positions and in retail, and one thing that has always remained true is that if someone is just a “pretender to the throne,” the business or classroom fails. It takes a special kind of person to really take charge and make things work and grow the way they are intended to work and grow; to stop surviving and start thriving.

Next is the idea that groups aren’t always the best option; or in this case, fellowships. When the “fellowship of the ring” was established, it was intended to be protection and guidance for Frodo, who was tasked with returning the ring to the mountains of Mordor (specifically Mount Doom). However, as the journey progresses, we learn that this task is really something only Frodo, and his best friend Sam, can accomplish. The others are more like moral support, or background noise.

This also brought up something else that I found interesting:  although this fellowship was sent out as one unit, each individual had to take a personal journey as well, unique to himself, a sort of spiritual quest as he faced the challenges of battle and the evil power temptation of the Ring. So on this one long, epic journey, we are presented with several smaller journeys that help to shape the bigger picture. I thought that was another fitting form of “fellowship” – each of the smaller parts served to strengthen the whole of the story.

Finally, the idea of home, specifically the Shire (where the hobbits lived) was intriguing to me. At the beginning of the story it’s presented as an idyllic place, where innocence and ignorance live, a place none want to leave, and if they must do so, will be looked back on with fond memories. And yet by the end of the story, when the hobbits finally return, this vision of innocence and perfection has been shattered by all that they have seen and done, and for Frodo, it no longer feels quite like home. Even the happy ending wasn’t quite happy after all. I liked that. It reminded me of my own life, when something major or even traumatic happens and my perceptions of my surroundings, my safe places, shifts, and I feel somehow lost or displaced.

I don’t know that I will read this book again, although I know there are symbols and depths that I have yet to explore within its pages. Perhaps I will simply read the SparkNotes for it and find my fulfillment there. For now, I will leave you with one of my favorite photos, which includes this epic adventure, billed with the ability to piss off four groups of “geeks” in one shot:

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Nineteen Eighty-Four 1949 by George Orwell

“Power is not a means, it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes a revolution in order to establish a dictatorship.”

In November of 2014, I began reading through a list of 100 novels created by Time Magazine in 2005. The first one on the list was To Kill A Mockingbird, and I wrote a blog post about it here. The next book was 1984, by George Orwell, which I had never read before. It was interesting, though a bit disturbing.

The premise of the novel is a description of the world in 1984 (thirty-five years in the future at the time it was written), a post-nuclear war world ruled by only three superstates:  Oceana, Eastasia, and Eurasia. At that time, the world was in a constant state of war, although it wasn’t always clear who was at war with whom, and the battleground is always somewhere far away from the home and life of the main character, Winston.

Another piece of this society is one of the most commonly known today, the surveillance system known only as “Big Brother”. In the book, there are tele-screens that are actually dual-purpose devices, playing a steady stream of propaganda while simultaneously recording everything that is going on.

A few other interesting aspects of this future world are “newspeak”  and “doublethink”. “Newspeak” is a truncated version of English in which words are strung together and abbreviated to create new words, similar to text language today. It was deliberately limiting, intended to make revolutionary thought impossible because the words were literally gone from the common vocabulary.

“Doublethink” was also meant to squash independent thought. It was “to know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it.”

Upon finishing the novel, I was left with a feeling of sadness when Winston was finally “assimilated” into society; it’s not often I’ve come across a novel without a happy ending. It was also quite disturbing to compare the events and suppositions of the story to society today. How many citizens of the world are being forced to think a certain way or speak with limited vocabulary without even knowing it? How much of our lives is actually our own, and how much is being watched in one way or another?

I know with the recent election of Trump as President, many people have been comparing the world to Orwell’s imagined future. I’m not saying I agree with that, but I do believe that words are a very powerful thing, and that if we aren’t careful, “dystopian” will become more than just a genre of literature.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Just One Word

“Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind” – Rudyard Kipling

Today is the ninth annual “Spread the Word to End the Word” day, a worldwide event to spread information and awareness regarding special needs and the use of one very destructive word:  retarded. You can find information regarding it’s focus and goals by checking out the spread the word website.

The idea that “one little word can be a powerful thing” is another popular trend over the past decade or so. In fact, there’s a whole online, global community dedicated to choosing one word and “making it visible” in your life throughout a calendar year. I’ve even joined an online class and Facebook group born from this concept (my “one little word” for 2017 is “explore”), with monthly prompts and all sorts of fun art supplies to purchase and projects to complete.

I love that these two sites exist. I have always been fascinated by and, let’s be honest, a bit obsessed with, words. I learned to read very early, and I remember writing my first story when I was in daycare as a first grader. Although I struggle to express myself verbally at times (part of my superpowers of autism), words are my happy place, my safe place, how I see the world and best understand it. I have learned how powerful they can be, a catalyst for change in both positive and negative ways.

I would like you to answer something for me, perhaps out loud, or to a friend, or maybe just to yourself right now as you read this:  How often have you taken time to think about what you say? Are there words that you’ve used so often and in so many different contexts that they no longer mean anything (the word “cool” comes to mind)? Is there a word that you heard maybe once, a long time ago, that still hurts every time you think about it? Is there a word that motivates or encourages you every time you hear it, say it, or think it? What words are forbidden in your house? Why are they forbidden? What power are we giving to our words?

I remember reading a short story/essay in University called “Bitch.” (I apologize if this word is offensive to you; it was the actual title of the piece, and I will explain why if you keep reading). It was written by a young woman in her early twenties who had been called that name by others trying to put her down. One day, her and a few close friends started calling each other that word. It wasn’t to demean or hurt, but to do something radical – by using the word regularly, as a nickname for close friends, the negative power that word had over her was stripped away. Suddenly it was “just another word” and meant nothing.

While I think it’s great to have a designated day to raise awareness for something, I think it would be so much more powerful if we each took on the challenge of allowing “one little word” to show up in our daily lives, to be a strong, positive influence over our decisions and actions. Or if we acknowledged the power one word or many words have been granted in our lives to cause pain, and think of ways to strip that power and replace those words with more positive ones.

I don’t want us to just “spread the word to end the word”; let’s “spread the word to choose a word” that will make a profound difference, right now, today. I’ve committed to it for this year, at least, and I will hopefully be sharing, from time to time, how it shows up in my life. So. What will your word be?